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New World Wine Maker Blog - winemaker interviews

Mathew Day – Winemaker at Klein Constantia

Q. Where do you originate ?

“I was born in the deep South of Johannesburg without a vine in sight !”

Q. How did you get from there to having a plumb winemaking job at Klein Constantia ?

“It was my Grandfather. He taught me all things great about farming and then late one afternoon he introduced me to a bottle of Rustenberg John X Merriman. This sparked my fascination for wine. To be involved in farming and have your end product to be wine. How better could the world be ?”

Q. So how did you get from there to being a winemaker ?

“I studied at University of Stellenbosch and graduated with BSc Agric in Winemaking  and viticulture.”

Q. And then ? 

“Well then I set out on my travels and working in wine to gain experience in a whole lot of winemaking areas.” The adds as a bit of an understatement “I have been fortunate  to gain experience in some great wineries.”

Q. Such as ?

“I guess I could start with Meerlust. Then there was Elderton in the Barossa Valley. Chateau Belefort Belclair in Saint Emilion. I was an intern at Chteau Trianon, also St Emilion and at Dancing with Hares in Napa.” Again as an after thought   “ I also spent some time in Pomerol, Sancerre and Tokjai.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

With some serious thought.  “That’s a tough question because everyone thinks they are special in terms of what they do. I feel that I have been privileged enough to have the opportunity to learn from lots of successful winemakers  across the world and meld all of their ideas into what we do today at Klein Constantia.” After some thought “My predecessor at Klein Constantia have laid magnificent foundations to build on.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ? 

“I would love to be more involved  but I feel I have my hands full in the cellar but we have a great vineyard team.”

Q. Do you have any varieties  you prefer to work with ?

Without hesitation “Sauvignon blanc. However here at Klein Constantia  we have to deal with many different varieties.  My aim is to make one of the best Sauvignons Blanc in South Africa and to make one of  the best sweet wine in the world.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ?

“Pascal Jolivet from Sancerre has been one of my biggest inspirations. I am privileged enough to go there every year. Then, Adam Mason and Chris Williams have been great mentors.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ? 

“Having the privilege to make Vin de Constance as well as to be part of it’s heritage.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

Quite humbly “Less is more and don’t overcomplicate things.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“Not at all. I believe in sticking to the basics.” He continues  “In producing our most famous wine, Vin de Constance, We employ the most ancient of methods with  open top wooden vats and hand punch downs.”

Q. What about the future ?

“My aim is to make a truly Klein Constantia style wine and the only way to do this is by respecting the terroir and thinking out of the box.”

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Kathy and Gary Jordan – Winemakers at Jordan Wine Estate

Q.  Where were you good folk born ?

Kathy “I was born in Pinelands but grew up in Rondebosch.” Gary “We lived in Wellington but I was born in  Paarl which was the closest Hospital. Both my Grandfather and Great-grandfather were mayors of Wellington”

Q. Where did you go to school ? 

Gary “I went to Bishops, Rondebosch and then UCT where I did a Double Major Geology.” Kathy “I went to Rustenberg High School for Girls and the to UCT Majoring in Economics and Industrial Psychology.” Gary continues “We both attended UC Davis, California  doing the Viticulture and Enology Masters Programme before work a year in the industry there after we finished at Davis.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking different to others ? 

Gary “I am not sure , but everything at Jordan revolves around the soil and bedrock geology.  Gravity flow and a clean, hygienic, modern cellar complete the environment.” He contuse earnestly  “ We’re passionate about wines. We eat,  sleep and drink  wine and taste wines from all over the world as often as we can. Holidays are often to wine regions, unless we are in the bush and then we send some interesting wines on ahead. The Okavango Delta is where we like to unwind, ‘til we recently bought a lodge in the Timbavati.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

Gary : “Lots – fully involved in all aspects from soil preparation; clonal and rootstock decisions; which slope and row direction to plant and everything else. I’ve been working the soils at Jordan Estate for over 33 years now.” Kathy adds “With Gary so involved I am less involved on a daily basis  in the vineyards, but I run through them with the dogs every evening after leaving the winery just to check them out !” We have both lived here for over 30 years so we know every inch of Jordan Wine Estate intimately.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

Almost in unison “Whites, Chardonnay and Chenin. Reds, Cabernet sauvignon and Syrah.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or region ?

Collectively  : “ The USA because of our time studying and working  in there, mostly from a technology and international outlook point of view but not wine-style . That was France our love for Burgundy foe white. We also love red Burgundy but don’t have any Pinot Noir plated at Jordan.” With a hint of fun “In our next life we will come back with  Jordan  Estate transported to Burgundy.” Then continuing a pace “We have recently bought the neighbouring property and will be planting some interesting varieties other than more Cab and Chardonnay. Assyrtiko is a Greek white variety a little like Riesling which will be taking Kathy back to her Greek roots !  Assyrtiko is very aromatic and can handle strong wind  and conditions , perfect for the highest part of the adjoining property we recently purchased and overlooks False Bay.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as winemakers ?

Collectively “ Having successfully grown our business from 6,000  cases to equivalent of over 65,000 12 bottle cases and have enjoyed evey minute of it. Our reward  is the enjoyment that we get from customers who are loyal to our brand and love our wines as much as we do ! This year we will receice the IWSC International Chardonnay Trophy for the 3rd time, on top of having been awarded the Pichon Trophy for the best Blended Red wine and the South Africa Wine Producer of the Year.” As an afterthought  “So we must be doing something right !”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” to make your wines different to others ?

With a hint of secrecy “ Ah, that would be telling…..no, there are no secrets, but no one will be able to replicate what we have , on another site. The difference lies in the vineyards. The clonal selection, the microclimate soils, slopes and so on. The care we take in the cellar and the pleasure we get  from the great industry that we work in and that inspired us to make the world-class wines we make. Our team is amazing, probably the strongest we have ever had and many have been with us for years.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

Again as a collective “Important enough to ensure that grapes, juice and wine is treated with respect. We like to say that our cellar uses technology in the hands of Mother Nature and we are not slaves to changing equipment the moment there is something new on the market.”

Q. What about the future ?

Again as a collective response “We have been involved with this property since Gary’s parent Ted and the late Sheelagh Jordan first purchased the run-down 74 ha place in 1982. Since then it has grown into 164 ha  as we have bought adjoining parcels  with a cellar, two restaurants (and a third in London on the Thames) and a boutique hotel with accommodation for 30 people. We have developed a destination estate where  visitors can enjoy the beauty and tranquillity of Stellenbosch and the surrounding mountains, panoramic views and peace of the countryside and not having the experience spoiled by it all being too commercial.” “In the future we plan to add a few more interesting varieties to our current selection. We’ve mentioned Assyrtiko but also Viognier, Grenache and Cinsault all to be planted on the newly purchased 20 ha at the top of the Estate overlooking False Bay.” Then in ending with sincerity  “We will continue to produce quality wines and give the customer excellent friendly and professional service and all in a unique and enjoyable experience on the estate.”

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Introducing Brendan Butler of Mount Vernon

Q. Where do you originate ?

With a charming grin “I am a Vaalie !  I was born in Roodepoort !”

Q. How on earth did you get from there to making wine in the Cape ?

“Our family holidays usually resulted in a great exodus to the Cape. We would travel from wine farm to wine farm and my parents would taste while I would observe. It wasn’t boring. Instead I observed in awe.  It was while I was walking through the old Glen Carlow cellar with the then assistant, Arco Laarman, that I decided the Winemaker lifestyle was for me. No sitting behind a desk or computer !”

Q. Where did you study ?

“I did my studies in Viticulture and Oenology at Elsenburg.” Then continues with a smile “I am pleased to say I passed !”  and adds “I  might not be the most flamboyant winemaker around but a love what I do”

Q. Your record shows you do  what you love pretty well ?

“Yes, I have managed  a few awards for Mount Vernon Wines.”

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ? 

“I have tasted  some great wines of the world and this has made me strive  to reflect   the unique  virtues of the vineyard in each wine I make. This involves minimal intervention and adjustments, and the use of uncultivated yeasts. I don’t believe this approach to winemaking is new, but I do feel it is becoming more common as winemakers start to understand and appreciate the vineyards they work with.”

Q. You mention the vineyard. How involved to you get in the vineyard ?

“I believe the greatest wines are made in the vineyard so I strive to spend as much time in the vineyard as possible, but I am also very fortunate  to work with a great a great viticulturist and farm manager that has a great understanding of our vineyards.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

With a wry smile “That would be like having to choose your favourite child….. However, if I were forced to choose I  would still have half a dozen led by Riesling and Chardonnay then Semillon, Cab and Syrah.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ?

In a serious vein “I have been very fortunate  to have met and worked with some truly inspirational and knowledgeable winemakers whom have had a profound impact on my approach to viticulture and winemaking. The start of my winemaking career at Jordan Wine Estate most definitely put me on the right path. As for wine regions, I aspire to travel to make wine in every winemaking country in the world !!”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a Winemaker ?

With a serious  smile “Waking up and being able to do what I do what I am truly passionate about each day of my life is something I don’t believe any gong could trump”

Q. What “secrets “ have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?

“No secrets  or tricks. Just respect for the vine and cellar hygiene is critically important as a winemaker.”

Q How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

“There are plenty of “toys” for winemakers, and I would imagine one could get pretty carried away, but  other than a pneumatic press  and a little micro oxygenation unit, the cellar is kept fairly simple.”

Q. And the future ?

“Winemaking has been an all consuming passion from my early teenage years and I look forward  to being able to craft some truly memorable wines. In the meantime, I will steal with my ears and eyes and continue to tatse those rare and treasured gems. The future can  only be exciting.”

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MURRAY BARLOW – RUSTENBERG WINES

Your winery is a part of South African History. 

“it certainly is. The property was granted in 1699 and,  although there were wineries making wine before us we have produced more continuous vintages than any other winery in South Africa. At a time the property was owned by the last  prime Minister of the old Cape Colony, John X Merriman.”

Q. Where were you born ?

“I was born in Somerset West and grew up on a historic farm on the Helderberg.”

Q. Your education was not usual for a winemaker ?

“Yes, my family had different ideas. I went to school in Kwa Zulu Natal and matriculated from Hilton College. I then went on to read a Bachelor of Social Science majoring in Organisational Psychology and Industrial Sociology at Rhodes University. Following  my time at Rhodes I worked two vintages in the Rustenberg cellar and studied first year chemistry part time at the University of Stellenbosc before reading my Masters in Oenonology at University  of Adelaide, Australia graduating with distinction at end of 2011.”

Q. Not your usual lead into winemaking  ? 

With a disarming smile “No, but it seems to have    worked !”

Q. In what way ?

“I have twice been short listed by Diners Club Young Winemaker of the year and this year have two of my Chardonnays in the top six !!”   (Five Soldiers Chardonnay 2012 and Rustenberg Chardonnay 2014)

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“No, I believe in sound conventional winemaking that balances the basic chemistry of healthy winemaking  with the reality of the potential of the fruit I work with along with the commercial reality of the styles of wine people want to drink and cellar.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“During harvest I am in the vineyards every day. We make all our final picking decisions on taste. Throughout the year I try to visit the vineyard twice a week and feedback areas of concern to the vineyard team which is headed by my father, Simon. We face a number of issues throughout the year that need careful management ranging from eutypa, wind damage and the containment and elimination of leaf-roll  virus. Healthy vineyards , in balance, produce great wine.”

Q. Do you have any varieties  you prefer to work with ? 

“I enjoy the challenge of working with Chardonnay, it is versatile and forgiving but will also highlight clumsy decisions made in the vineyard and winery.  While Cabernet Sauvignon would be the most humbling red varietal to work with and it is truly a varietal forged in the vineyard. My “thing on the side” would be Grenache. When made properly , I believe it is the most drinkable and delicious of all red varietals !”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or wine region ?

“ I think I have been influenced by a number of people along my journey in wine. My father, Simon, Randolf Christians our head winemaker, and our consultant, Kym Milne MW. All possess a great focus and humility to the approach to wine.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ?  

“Winning the 2013 Diner’s Club Young Winemaker of the Year would be the single most important. “

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wines different to others ?  “We have a culture of small scale experimentation at Rustenberg that focusses to better our products and not reinvent the wheel. There are also many winemakers  who have come before us, some of the most valuable lessons we have learnt have been from asking questions and listening to other winemakers  from all over the world and then to test these ideas on our own wines. Don’t stop learning and don’t fall in love with your own wines, a cellar palate is a death sentence.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?  “As I said above, I believe in conventional winemaking however not overly manipulative winemaking. Clean stainless steel tanks, high quality pumps, hoses, filters, clean healthy barrels etc…. are all essential. Manipulative technology such as micro-oxygenation or must concentrators are not used by us.”

Q. How about the future ? “There is no future without a past. My family have farmed Rustenberg since 1941 and together with my father our focus is on the production of iconic wines from  the Stellenbosch region. Exporting 80% of our production we believe there is great potential for South African wine to have  a better standing internationally. The style of wine  we are producing as a country appeals to a broad range of consumers and the relative value for money we deliver at all price points is exceptional.”

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FRANCOIS BEZUIDENHOUT – MAN FAMILY WINES

Q. Where do you originate ? 

“I was born in Port Elizabeth in 1983.”

Q. Where did you study ? 

“I went to University of Stellenbosch where I did a BSc Agric. (Viticulture and Oenology)

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“Not really, but the focus of my job is to create wines for specific markets. So this provides a great variety of type and style to produce. The goal is to make enjoyable, good value wines.”

Q.  How involved to you get in the vineyard ? 

“ Very. During harvest I have to make the decisions around when to harvest and so on. I try to work with the growers as far as possible. It helps to have a long-term approach to get the vineyard to where it needs to be.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ? 

“I enjoy Chenin Blanc and Rhone varieties in particular. They are  all well suited to region where we grow grapes which is Paarl.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or by a wine region ? 

“I wouldn’t say so, but I learn something new every day. For me the beauty of wine is that one can spend your whole life in the industry and still only know half of what there is to know.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest achievement as a winemaker ? 

With a wry grin “Getting through the harvest without too many hiccups !!”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make your wine different to others ? 

“Maybe not any secret. I started my career working in big wineries, often handling over a 1000 tons per day I think it taught me to stay focussed when the pressure was on.  Planning helps too.. “  and adds “Maybe not a secret but planning is essential.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ? 

With serious expression “It plays a huge role. Mostly the innovation around alternative oak, tannins, enzymes are exciting. I think these things have played a massive role in getting rid of really undrinkable wines of a few years ago in the value for money wines.”

Q. How about the future ? 

“After completion of my studies in Stellenbosch I worked a few harvests abroad.  Germany, California and New Zealand which gave me an excellent perspective from a totally different point that we have in South Africa. Then I worked in Robertson for a few years before joining Man Vintners in 2011 where the future certainly looks good for our exports.  I enjoy being part of a vibrant team. Things certainly look bright for the future with many new developments on the horizon.  I hope to see South Africa’s wine exports growing. South Africa desperately needs more visibility and recognition overseas.”

Q. You differ from a lot of winemakers in that you are also a Cape Wine Master ?

“ Yes, I felt I needed a better understanding of wine styles, laws,  varieties and history here and in other countries. One can’t travel everywhere so it is a great opportunity to drink and learn about wines from elsewhere in the world. I also enjoy being part of a group of knowledgeable people  with a common interest. There are a number of other winemakers who are also Cape Wine Masters with one of the earliest being Jeff Grier of Villiera.

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DEBBIE THOMPSON – WINEMAKER SIMONSIG

Q.  Where were you born ? 

“In the small diamond mining town of Oranjemund in Namibia.”

Q. That is a long way from winemaking country ?

“Sure is and winemaking was not my first inclination.”

Q. How did it come about ?

“In 1966 I went to the University of Stellenbosch with the idea of becoming a vet. As a first year student it is all about  trying new things  and experimenting.  Being in the heart of one of the most beautiful wine producing areas in the world, it was a natural to visit wine farms and taste a lot of great and not so great wines. It was certainly rated as one of the favoured  extra-curricular activities.  Let me just  say that veterinary  science took a back seat ! Sixteen years ago I was not so sure I’d be offered a winemaking position being a woman, so I studied Oenology  but also specialised in microbiology and chemistry.  I finished my BSc Agric in 1999. With only one harvest under my belt at Hazendal I applied for a job as an Assistant winemaker at Simonsig. At the age of 23 , I was appointed the first female winemaker in the history of Simonsig. I was to be in charge of the red wines, the pressing cellar and the cellar staff. Some of my cellar staff had been working at Simonsig before I was born !! It was not just a challenge but a life changing  experience. Like any job you have good and not so good days but I wouldn’t trade my job for any other. “

Q. Do you consider your approach to winemaking to be different to others ?

“Although there are basic guidelines to winemaking there are so many different facets where you can differentiate yourself.  I try and capture the true essence of each varietal and try to express the terroir  through the grapes.  I am a control freak to my own detriment ! However, I believe meticulous attention to detail  gives me an edge.”

Q. How involved do you get in the vineyard ?

“Not as much as I should. During harvest time I go to the blocks regularly and taste the grapes. Timing is everything.”

Q. Do you have any varieties you prefer to work with ?

“I love working with pinotage because of its versatility and then, of course, the king of all kings, Cabernet Sauvignon.”

Q. Have you been influenced by any particular winemaker or wine region ?

“Johan Malan is my mentor and his knowledge and experience is very inspiring to me.”

Q. What would you consider your greatest winemaking achievement ?

“Woman Winemaker of the Year 2005 and my Redhill Pinotage 2003.”

Q. What “secrets” have you “developed” that make you different to others ?

“I am not so sure about a “secret” but definitely a “philosophy”, I am not trying to reinvent the wheel when it comes to winemaking. I stick to the basics and do them extremely well. People  who have come to know and love Simonsig wines want consistency year after year, but at a high quality standard. This is the point of difference for me.”

Q. How important is modern winemaking equipment in your winemaking ?

“One needs to keep up with the times and if new machines and equipment  can save you time and money, I am all for it. How much they move the needle in terms of wine quality advantage, well that can be debatable. We are naturally reliant on machinery especially because of the volumes of wine we produce and the premium  quality we produce at.”

Q. How about family life ?

“Very happily married and have two beautiful daughters. We live on Thelema where my husband is the Farm Manager. We have the obligatory farm dogs. A Boerboel named Dumba who is a mini lion and Tobie our die hard Jack Russel.

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